The Frontal Cortex

The Neuroscience of Insight

I’ve got an article in the latest New Yorker (not online) on the neuroscience of insight. I begin the article with the harrowing story of Wag Dodge and the Mann Gulch fire, before describing the research of Mark Jung Beeman, John Kounios and Earl Miller:

There is something inherently mysterious about moments of insight. Wag Dodge, for instance, could never explain where his idea for the escape fire came from. (“It just seemed the logical thing to do” was all he could muster.) His improbable survival has become one of those legendary stories of insight, like Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” when he saw his bathwater rise, or Isaac Newton watching an apple fall from a tree and then formulating his theory of gravity. Such tales all share a few essential features, which psychologists and neuroscientists use to define “the insight experience.” The first of these is the impasse: before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a mental block. Wag Dodge spent minutes running from the fire, although he was convinced that doing so was futile. Then, when the insight arrived, Dodge immediately realized that the problem was solved. This is another key feature of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the idea. Dodge didn’t have time to think about whether his plan. He simply knew that it would.

Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. “It’s one of those defining features of the human mind, and yet we have no idea how or why it happens,” he told me. Insights have often been attributed to divine intervention, but, by mapping the epiphany as a journey between cortical circuits, Jung Beeman wants to purge the insight experience of its mystery.

The article goes on to describe some of the processing differences between the right and left hemispheres (the right hemisphere seems to be the source for most of our Aha! moments) and the role of the prefrontal cortex in orchestrating brain activity. Here are a few of the papers I mention.


  1. #1 Lee Pirozzi
    July 22, 2008

    Insight is frightening sometimes when the person with it experiences it and then finds it validated a few days later.
    When it happens repetitively even the person with the ability continues to question exactly where it comes from. I’ll be reading your article.

  2. #2 Nebularry
    July 22, 2008

    “Back-in-the-day” when I was a devout theist, insight experiences were often defined as inspiration, the “promptings of the Holy Ghost” or even revelation. I abandoned those explanations several years ago yet have always wondered how it is that they happen. Your post is quite fascinating and I’ll be very excited to follow future developments in insight experience research. Thanks, too, for the links.

  3. #3 Howard Schamest
    July 23, 2008

    Terrific article, thanks for the insight into why my best ideas arrive during a morning hot shower.

  4. #4 razib
    July 23, 2008

    congratz on getting in the new yorker!

  5. #5 Steve Marr
    July 24, 2008

    Thanks for a very interesting article (well written by the way). Glad they are making progress in understanding this intriguing process. Any ideas as to how mental imagery (and Dr. Kosslyn’s research) may contribute to this process?

  6. #6 Robert MacLean
    July 25, 2008

    I enjoyed your article and was repeatedly reminded of Arthur Koestler”s “The Act of Creation” first published in 1964,in which the understanding of mind function with regard to creativity is explored. His assertions with regard to the insights obtained through humor and metaphor are most valuable. There is also an earlier article by him on “Insight and Outlook”.

  7. #7 jb
    July 27, 2008

    Great piece! the Dodge story in particular is an example of how we all have inate wisdom and compassion within us regardless of what you call it or where you think it comes from. I might add a few steps to the process based on my experience as a meditator, science educator and artist. This process happens whether you are looking in the fridge to come up with a new, tasty use for leftovers, or when you have a problem on whose solution your life depends. And sometimes you don’t have to know anything about the situation but it can help, as the Dodge story illustrates.
    So it have an insight:
    1. Study the problem: a) Dodge obviously knew how fire and fuels behave from his past experience and his brain used this even if he didn’t consciously access the info; b) he was also paying close attention to the physical situation in the present moment to see what was at hand.
    2. Ask the question. Dodge consciously or unconsciously ran through the possible solutions and finding none, asked the question about how to escape the fire.
    3. Give up thinking about the possible solutions or anything else. Sometimes this happens through relaxation; probably Dodge was not relaxed, just totally present without thought.
    4. Go with what arises. Dodge didn’t have time to do otherwise. An artist or scientist might first come up with an image or insight and then test it with perhaps a little tinkering and thinking. Once back at ‘square one’, a teacher of mine said: “first thought, best thought”.
    To have insights on a regular basis one need not take lots of showers or play ping pong. Rather one can train to be in a relaxed, observant state of mind 24/7 through meditation usually. A common technique is shamatha-vipasyana or calm abiding-insight meditation as taught in the buddhist tradition. The first part of the technique is to train the mind to relax and cut absorption in thoughts, while becoming attentive to the sense perceptions of the present moment. With practice one has then set the stage for noticing any situation and letting an insight come to you from the right hemisphere rather than trying to think up a response using the left hemisphere; this is the vispasyana stage.
    I was reminded of the necessity of all the steps above this morning when I set out to make double-sided copies of Jonah’s article on an unfamiliar machine. Ah! the zen of xeroxing.

  8. #8 jb
    July 28, 2008

    PS to the above: if you read the detailed account of the Dodge story you’ll see that he was strongly motivated not only to save his own life but also the lives of his crew members and urged them to stay with him in the fire-cleared area. They did not. This was an unusual solution in 1949, no doubt.

  9. #9 Luci
    July 29, 2008

    Proust was too short (Jonah’s not Marcel’s), so it’s always a treat to find more writing from the wise, witty and articulate Mr. Lehrer. The only two print magazines I read are New Yorker and Seed. Dr. Gawande look out – there’s a new kid in town.

    Right brain wonders show themselves off like intuition itself. A wide net catches many odd creatures. I’d like to see Jung-Beeman et al. delve more into REM sleep chemical and electrical activity compared to what’s happening in the unfocussed dreamy/creative states in waking hours. If the anterior right temporal lobe neighborhood is ablaze at those times, it comes as no surprise to those of us where that area produces seizures.

    And what about all those discredited right-female/left-male theories and the time-honored women’s intuition? Obviously both genders need to think with every available neuron, and gamma and alpha make a lovely pairing.

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